By Paula R. Stiles
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This season of Supernatural has been like a slow trainwreck, with the tired old retread of Lucifer and his “baby mama drama” plot that both repeats last season’s much-better Amara storyline and retcons Lucifer’s redemption in it (plus, we’re now supposed to believe he’s the eldest because that’s not a total retcon of season five, or anything).
But we’ve also been subjected to one of the worst storylines of the entire show, a storyline that didn’t have to be bad, could even have been good, but was just plain awful. This storyline has done more to bring up old fault lines and prejudices that the current showrunners and head writers have previously demonstrated than anything since Sam had no soul.
In theory, the British Men of Letters (I call them the “LoL”) are a great idea. They’re a human group that could be either an ally or an enemy. They are affiliated with the Brothers by blood (according to Grandpa Winchester) and they are related to the Brothers’ current home, which Sam and Dean inherited through their heritage as Legacies. And they could have connections (as we have found) to preexisting recurring characters, King of Hell Crowley and his Scottish witch mother Rowena. Plus, they have sparkly toys.
Unfortunately, a good idea does not automatically equal great execution if the writing isn’t there – and this year, the writing just isn’t there. This storyline is a good example of flaws in the writing from all season long.
So, how hideous are the jingoistic stereotypes in this storyline? Toni Bevell is a walking Posh Twat, an upperclass snob who looks down her nose at the Winchesters, criticizes their approach to hunting, and claims ownership over the entire United States (though, curiously, not Canada). Meanwhile, she engages in torture of people who haven’t done anything to her personally without an ounce of irony. Her (late) henchwoman, Ms Watt, is a butch stereotype straight out of the Amazon episode we all wish the show had never done. Mick Davies appears to have been inspired by the movie version of Oliver Twist (and, despite being identified as English, has an Irish nickname and is played by an Irish actor). Ketch seems to come from watching too much The Avengers. And Doctor Hess has already been compared to Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Unfavorably.
In light of the fact that all of these characters are stereotypes completely divorced from the writers’ actually knowing anybody from the UK (or anything first-hand about the British Isles), and that none of the actors is actually English (all the principles are Canadian or Irish), it’s not really a surprise that the LOL characters all sport some of the fakiest Received Pronunciation accents outside of BBC Radio and that there is no visible understanding among the writers that “British” and “English” are not interchangeable terms. This, predictably, has led to much mockery from across the Pond from the very beginning of this season.
What’s my motivation?!
I haven’t seen this much chaos over character motivation since the botched job that was Soulless Sam in season six. At the end of last season, we were introduced briefly to Toni Bevell’s cute little moppet (about whom I did not care) before she showed up at the Bunker and shot Sam in a cliffhanger that made no fan anxious about Sam’s fate (we all knew he would live).
Jump to this season and you’d think Toni would be all about reclaiming the Bunker for the use of her people, but nope. She and Ms Watt relocated to some farmhouse with a spacious cellar to torture Sam, leaving the Bunker completely open and unprotected for Dean and Castiel to return and reoccupy. Never mind that we just found out last week that the LoL could have changed the locks at any time.
So, strike one on motivation making any sense.
Now, mind you, the world nearly ended last season and it was pretty obvious that was going on. In fact, it looked an awful lot as though Toni’s trip to the U.S. was motivated by this global calamity. But noooo. Toni is far more interested in asking Sam questions about how the “network” of American Hunters works, even as she claims to know everything about him.
Okay, so, if she already knows everything about him, why isn’t she asking pertinent questions about things she doesn’t know about, like why the sun almost went out? Why ask questions about stuff she should already know? Is this an epic botch of As You Know, Sam or a straight-up plothole?
So, strike two and boy, these LoL are starting to look dumb.
At some point, you would think the show might have addressed the elephant in the room: If the LoL are so knowledgeable and powerful, where the hell have they been through all the apocalypses of the past decade? Where do they get off judging the Brothers when they have apparently sat out the near-Heat Death of the entire universe? Guess what? The show doesn’t even take a swing at that ball. It just pretends the issue isn’t there.
Then we get to Mick Davies and his character arc about two-thirds of the way through. We find out that he was plucked off the streets (because apparently, the writers are under the impression that Victorian England is still a thing and street urchins still pick pockets) and sent to Kendricks Academy. There, he is subjected to a test where he is forced to kill his best friend. It is strongly implied that this is a rite of passage that every single one of the LoL goes through during school.
[screeeeeeeeeeeeech!] Say, what, now?!
Let’s parse this out. First, according to Toni Bevell, creepy Arthur Ketch is supposed to be the scariest of the LoL and uniquely psychopathic, which is why Mick called him in, in the first place. If all of the LoL are “blooded” by killing their best friends, how does that make Ketch unique in any way? I mean, think about that.
And if every LoL member goes through this rite of passage, why do the LoL staffers who are killed by the Alpha Vampire come across as so … soft? None of them acts like a person who has killed before. They’re just techie redshirts. In fact, Mick himself struggles with killing even a newly turned werewolf girl. Where is the inevitable moral hardening that would come from such a rite of passage? The only character who shows it is Ketch and maybe Ms Watt. Even Toni and Doctor Hess don’t come off as particularly good at killing.
Second, the one introductory scene we have of Toni indicates she is emotionally attached to her child, albeit via a nanny. Nary a hint that she may lose him someday. Hardly a set-up for this later “twist” that her child will eventually be forced to kill or be killed.
We also find out right away that she is upperclass nobility (by way of Downtown Abbey, no doubt). Mick and (it is strongly hinted) Ketch are orphans. It sorta, kinda makes sense that they could be subjected to tests where they have to kill each other as kids and not be missed by British child services (yes, Britain has them). Even if the idea of half of the recruits being forced to murder the other half makes no sense from a corporate investment point of view.
But what about Toni Bevell? She’s a titled lady. Her child is nobility. Are we honestly to believe that the English upper class would be okay with sending their children to a school where half of them will inevitably be murdered by the other half? I get that public schools in Britain are rough with the bullying, but come on. And how do they cover that up, exactly? These are not children no one will miss.
Also, it’s a tiny bit difficult to claim that your corporate mantra is protecting innocent humans from monsters when your organization kills more children than any monster in your territory and has a deal with the King of Hell not to interfere in demon deals. How, exactly, are you protecting humans, again?
Now that we’re back in the dugout, let’s address the LoL’s alleged motivation for coming to the U.S. Let’s point out very quickly that the idea that a small foreign group like the LoL, who have never been any kind of major players in previous apocalyptic events, could take over a huge territory like the United States with a population almost six times that of the UK, is ludicrous. So, the idea that this is even a realistic goal, let alone one they consider their right, is hilarious in all the wrong ways. Dabb, Singer, Buckner, and Ross-Leming, folks, please – the War of 1812 was a long time ago. Move on.
Anyhoo, the LoL blame the Winchesters for lots of crazy things having gone on the past few years, while they themselves have kept Britain locked down nice and tight. You know, aside from that Banshee in Ireland, Bela’s demon deal, the angels falling, and so on. A few of these things have been addressed (like Crowley having made a deal with Doctor Hess to stay out of Britain, which smelled a lot like a belated retcon to cover up a plothole pointed out by fans and roundly mocked). But for the most part, the LoL come off like unimpressive blowhards.
Even if that elephant about their absence at all the recent apocalypses didn’t keep coming back to haunt the writers, a few toys and riling up the Alpha Vampire haven’t exactly made the LoL look like the big threat the writers obviously wanted them to be. And that’s not even getting into the fact that there’s no reason for Hell to make a deal with the LoL in Britain because there’s no indication the LoL are any threat to Hell in the first place. I mean, what’s in it for Hell?
This also blows all of their precious pearl-clutching over all the black magic and shenanigans the Brothers have engaged in over the years right out of the water. If you’ve got a deal with the King of Hell himself, your entire organization is basically hellbound. One could argue that if it were just a case of Mick having second thoughts about bringing in Ketch and Doctor Hess pulling the strings, the hypocrisy might at least make a sort of cliched sense – the rank and file knoweth not what corruption the upper echelons are getting into (as hinted early on).
But bring in Toni and her snobbery about a moral high ground that doesn’t exist (the best part was her calling Ketch a “psychopath,” which was a classic case of Pot taking a meeting with Kettle) and it all falls apart. Toni and Ketch know perfectly well what’s going on and what’s their reaction? They’re competing over which one literally cuts the throat of the other to move up the ladder. There’s hypocrisy and then there’s “Why would you even believe that?” You end up with far too many mental and moral contortions.
Oh, but we’re not quite done with the tangled mess the show has made of the LoL’s motivations. On top of all that, Mary got brainwashed in the last episode. Now let me get this straight – the LoL have the capability of brainwashing even the most resistant subject, but we’re to believe they decided to go with the much more time-consuming and labor-intensive (and vulnerable to being exposed) method of raising kids in a negative kind of Hogwart’s and forcing them to kill each other, instead? And if they do have access to this brainwashing, why did Mick even have any doubts or second thoughts? Hell, why even bother to kill off the other Hunters when you can just capture them and do your own Telefon program on them?
It’s as if Dabb & Co. took every motivation for every major group antagonist on the show (i.e., brainwashing for angels, “blooding” for the Stynes), at least every recent group, and threw it at the wall to see what stuck for the LoL. And what we ended up with was a big, bloody, unsatisfying Rorschach inkblot.
I’m not one of those fans who go to extremes on the show’s approach to gender issues. I think Supernatural actually has made a concerted effort for years to bring in more female and PoC, and especially GLBT, characters (with mixed success). Is it the best at this? No. Is it the worst? Not even close.
But it does have its ups and downs, and some writers are better than others (unfortunately, this season is being run by some of the worst). I didn’t think Charlie’s character was one of its finer moments. Though her Checklist Sue character was beloved in some quarters of fandom, her appearances really began to tank in the ratings after “PacMan Fever.” Whether or not that had to do with her being a lesbian character written by a straight male and played by a straight woman as a tonedeaf Manic Pixie Dream Girl who spent all her time hanging out with two guys, I don’t know, but the ratings alone were a good enough reason to write her out. It’s a little hard to take seriously the wailing and gnashing of teeth on Tumblr about how she was a fan favorite who got fridged by the mean old TPTB when a significant portion of the audience that happily watched the episodes before and after her last episode didn’t bother to show up for her swan song, resulting in the lowest audience for an episode up to that time.
This wasn’t the case with Eileen, who was summarily killed off in the teaser of last week’s episode (Rowena also looks not long for this world). And there’s something really unpleasant going on this season with the LoL female characters versus other female characters. The LoL women, per above, were/are hugely unpleasant stereotypes, yet we’re still stuck with the two worst of them.
At the same time, they are partly responsible for the woobie-death of at least one well-liked female character (Eileen). This was on top of an MOTW episode the week before in which two female characters (one of them recurring) were fridged so that their Anakin Skywalker-like “talented” male relative could be turned to the Dark Side. On top of all that crap, those three were a family of PoCs.
I’ve often referred to Toni as a “Twat” (a popular expletive in the UK) in the past and that has not been accidental. The writers have acted precious about any bad fan reaction to Toni and Doctor Hess (and the unfortunate yoking of Mary’s already-struggling storyline to the LoL), as though this is an indication of fan sexism against women. God forbid we call a character how she’s (intentionally) being written.
And then the show turned around and had Ketch refer to Toni last week as “a bitch.” In an episode co-written by a woman. Hypocrisy, much?
The show has done this emotional bait-and-switch before and it’s not the first show to do it, either. But it was especially egregious this season, likely because Eileen was popular along the lines of Ellen and Jo (yet didn’t get anything as good as their send-off). But Toni is no Meg. Or Abaddon. So, it’s not working. People don’t want to savor Toni’s villainy. They just want her gone.
It didn’t help that the show tried to do “meet cute” in the middle of Sam’s torture earlier this season, having a “sexy” scene of Toni effectively mind-raping Sam by having him hallucinate being in bed with her. Women using magic to mind-rape men has an ugly history in recent genre shows, such as when Adalind in the show Grimm mind-raped three different male characters three different times and had two babies out of it, but ended up with the third victim (whom she had spent the first four seasons tormenting) in a One True Ship the last season and a half because of Baby Brain. I’m not kidding.
See? This show could still be so much worse.
Grimm and Once Upon a Time have both promoted the idea that having a baby can turn an Evil female character Good for basically no reason save hormones and Motherly Love, while other evil or morally gray characters are “punished” by infertility. If members of the latter group do redeem themselves, they have to do it the slow way via actual redemptive acts and character development. Hence, Toni’s moppet takes on a sinister connotation (and notice how there’s nary a hint that nasty, shriveled up old maid Doctor Hess could be redeemed). Fortunately, the writers seem to have had just enough motherwit (so far) to realize that didn’t fly with the fans and have kept her from meeting cute anymore with Sam.
To make matters worse, the writers are being totally hypocritical about their sexism. They write the Brothers as weak rather than trying to make Toni strong. Otherwise, she’d be no threat whatsoever. Mick, Ketch, and Hess are no great shakes as antagonists, either (though I’ll give extra points to the actors playing Mick and Ketch, both for actively connecting with the fandom and enthusiastically selling what thin gruel they got onscreen). But at least they aren’t dressed up in tight clothes and kitten heels, let alone played by an actress who shows no appreciable stage-fighting talent.
I suppose we’ll never know if Elizabeth Blackmore could have been good in the role when the writing and costuming never gave her a chance. Toni Bevell is Bela Talbot all over again including every mistake made with the character (albeit Lauren Cohan had a lot of charisma in the role that justified her being poached by The Walking Dead later on). It’s as if they never learned a thing from either Bela or Ruby’s reception by the fandom.
I know a lot of people have had issues with Mary’s arc this season (some of them legit). But at least she dresses and acts like someone who can kill monsters and is good at it. And Samantha Smith brings a grim gravitas to the role. There’s none of that in Toni and she desperately needed that kind of legitimacy to make sense as a character.
We even got her kneeing Dean in the groin last week (signalling that she’s a badass dealing with his sexism). But 1. Dean is the one lead character who already has to field all the writers’ most sexist ideas about gender as if he were a female lead and 2. Dean wasn’t being sexist in that scene. So, that subtext wasn’t justified.
In fact, I can think of a lot of fans who would love to watch him beat Toni’s face to a bloody pulp (not just that one punch near the beginning of the season) and then shoot her. She has, after all, tortured his brother, brainwashed his mother, captured and tortured him, and aided in the murder of at least one good friend. And that’s all on top of her group’s ludicrous and arrogant attempted invasion of his native land, while bragging about how they’ll run things so much better in their fascist way. A male character like that would have been dead by the end of the second episode this season.
The only reason Dean hasn’t yet rearranged her face is that the writers won’t let him: “The male Hero musn’t hit a girl.” Which is ridiculous. Dean is a much darker character than that and his uncharacteristic reticence just makes her look weak (along with frustrating the fans who don’t like her).
It looks as though the show is going to pull a Stynes-style massacre on the LoL this week, probably courtesy of Lucifer. I sure hope so, though I’d prefer the Winchesters get the primary kills. On the one hand, I mourn the loss of what could have been a good storyline (especially Mick and Ketch). On the other hand, I am so sick of these losers that I just want them given their send-off to Hell, never to be mentioned again.
Maybe Lucifer, Kelly, and their hate child can join them in show obscurity.
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